Friday, February 18, 2022

A Case Against Agents

Agents are heralded as champions of novelists. Many writers think their first step after finishing the book (if they aren't publishing it themselves) is to start finding one. But, there are many truths about agents you will not be told.

1. Agents get your money first.
Your agent is supposed to take their 15% before you get your share of royalties or advance payments. So, they get their hands on your money before you even see it (delaying your payday). Unsurprisingly, it's easy for them to skim off extra. If they do, they rarely get caught because people taught to trust their agents won't double-check. How well do you know someone over a dozen phone calls and emails?

2. Querying an agent is like submitting to a publisher.
So many spoonies tell me they don't have the energy to do round after round of submissions to publishers, but querying an agent and submitting your book to a publisher are quite similar; it can take years and dozens of attempts to get anyone's attention. Since a lot of writers go through more than one agent in their lifetime, agents are not a guarantee you won't have to submit/work your ass off for future projects.

3. Anyone can become an agent.
There are no formal requirements to becoming an agent. The best agents have knowledge of the industry, working relationships with various publishing houses, and a passion for books. But, nothing prevents a random person from printing out a business card and accepting clients.

4. Agents are more gatekeepers.
Authors from marginalized groups face even more considerations when dealing with gatekeepers. Will one book by a crip be labeled "enough" in the agency? Will agents not bring your books to the larger houses because they assume the "niche" novel by a neurodivergent writer won't sell? Editors pose plenty of hoops by themselves.

5. Agents can negotiate contracts without a law degree.
To clarify, I'm not saying someone has to have a degree to negotiate a contract (you can even attempt it after teaching yourself), but it's a mistake to automatically think they will always do a better job than a self-educated author. If you are scared you'll mess something up, there are IP lawyers you can pay who can get you better terms... without taking 15% of your royalties indefinitely. Plus, an agent might be more concerned with their relationship with a certain editor or publishing house than giving you what you deserve (you are one smaller client out of a dozen).

6. You don't need an agent to get published.
A lot of publishing houses have reading periods. Getting into one of the Big 5 (maybe the Big 4 soon) might not be directly possible, but even the largest houses can have hungry imprints that will consider manuscripts directly from authors. 

7. Agents aren't the only cheerleaders.
Some agents can be fuzzy cheerleaders, but so can other people in your life. If the main thing you're looking for is someone to lift you up during the writing and submitting process, you can join a writers' group or turn to a friend.

8. Agents can have terrible contracts.
Agent one had her author break up with her but can still get the 15% on a project she negotiated for the author years ago. Agent two won't submit a children's book for his once horror-writing client but will get 15% of the royalties should the author sell it themselves. Yet another agent makes money even when her client self-publishes. I know it seems like a "know what you're signing" warning (it is), but it's easy to slip an unfavorable clause somewhere. 
I know most writers and publishing professionals tell you an agent is necessary to navigate the waters, but most people telling you to get one tend to sweep the negatives under a rug they hope you don't move. Poets and other niche writers are advised (correctly) against trying to secure representation, anyway.  Agents are far from your only way into traditional publishing, and I hope you weigh every option in front of you before choosing your route. I'm cheering for you.

Further reading:

Dean Wesley Smith has a lot of older posts on agents. He and Kristine Kathryn Rusch are firmly against agents and negotiate contracts for themselves.

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